Out of the Attic: Mount Hope Bridge Construction Booklet

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One of the small treasures in the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society is a small booklet about the construction of the Mt. Hope Bridge.  It was written and illustrated with photos taken by the chief engineer of the project.  It is an incredible chronicle of a project of major importance to our town.  

The Portsmouth Historical Society has items from the opening festivities of the Mt. Hope Bridge in 1929.  Those items include an invitation, guest badge and photographs of the construction and ribbon cutting.  A front page newspaper article from the time helped us to understand how elaborate the ceremonies were.  Senator William H. Vanderbilt presided over the pageant.  Beginning at 10 in the morning a parade began in Bristol – a “tableau”  depicting Roger Williams organized by the Rhode Island Historical Society.  The Newport Historical Society organized a tableau and parade depicting John Clarke and they marched from the Aquidneck Island side.  At 11 AM “Roger Williams” met “John Clarke”  and unfurled flags at the center of the bridge and exchanged greetings. There was an Indian ceremony in which Governor Case and Senator Vanderbilt became members of the Algonquin Council.  Vice President Charles Curtis signaled from Washington, D.C. at noon to begin the dedication of the bridge.  The program lists events such as a christening of the bridge, ribbon cuttings and acceptance of bridge certification.  The ceremony was even broadcast on WEAN at the old Outlet Building in Providence.

Out of the Attic: Do we have a Civil War Cavalry Sword?

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Possible Civil War Cavalry Sword belonging to a lighthouse keeper.

The sword in this picture has been laying on the top of a display case in the Portsmouth Historical Museum.  It has been somewhat out of sight, so it is a good candidate for our Out of the Attic theme this year.  It had an acquisition number written on it which refers to some old museum records. According to the record. It was a:

“Civil War sword (that) belonged to Sheridan Smith, Calvary man. His horse was shot out from under him and for recognition he was made keeper of the Mussel Bed Shoal lighthouse. This is how they came to this section from Norton MA.”

Is this true? How can we determine that?

An on-line search revealed that historical records for the Mussel Bed Shoal lighthouse list a Thomas and Andrew Smith as lighthouse keepers – Not Sheridan Smith. Was Sheridan a middle name?


Mussel Shoal Light – near Mt. Hope Bridge area.

The 1880 Federal census lists ”Thomas S. Smith” as a resident of Portsmouth and a “Lighthouse Keeper”.  We learned that his wife’s name was “Roseanne.” Does the “S” stand for Sheridan? We noted that the census lists one of his sons as “Andrew.”

Thomas Smith died in 1881 and it appears that his son Andrew took over the role as lighthouse keeper.

A Veterans Schedule from 1890 lists Roseanne as the wife of Thos. S. Smith (Alias) “Thomas Sheridan.” It also says he was in the Cavalry.

Is this a cavalry sword? It is similar to images we have seen of a typical Civil War Cavalry Sword found online.

It appears that may indeed be a Civil War Calvary Sword that belonged to Thomas Sheridan Smith. Was his horse shot out from under him? That is more difficult to prove.  Maybe someone in Smith’s family has more of the story.

Research by Richard L. Schmidt of the Curator’s Committee

Oscar Miller: Bristol Ferry Artist

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Oscar Miller roses

Oscar Miller painting on sale at Ruby Lane website.

Much due to Sarah J. Eddy’s influence, Bristol Ferry was a cultural and intellectual center. It was also a transportation center that made it easy to take the Fall River Line to New York, ferry to Bristol, take a train to Fall River and north or farmers to ship their produce from the freight dock. It was a perfect place for Oscar Miller and other artists to call home.
Oscar Miller was an artist with a national reputation. He created over 1500 works. Miller exhibited at most of the great American art institutions: The National Academy, painting titled “Girl Reading” at the 1904 World’s Fair. He painted marine seascapes, salon paintings, genre studies, and figure studies. Miller had many studios – New York and Paris as well as Portsmouth. His first Portsmouth studio was in the living room of the cottage he built in 1897-8 for his wife to be and then a purpose built 1904 Gambrel or “Dutch” style studio structure with a huge North window on Bristol Ferry Road which still exists today. A shop shed was added when Oscar returned from Europe just before the First World War.
Sarah Eddy liked Oscar’s paintings in a New Your City exhibition and first invited him up to Bristol Ferry in 1896 to “paint the spring.” In Bristol Ferry, Oscar would dress his subjects in costumes – as did Sarah Eddy and other artists of their day. Eddy taught him photography and his photography was just as good as his painting. His grandson, Gus, has glass plates of his grandfather’s photography work.
While in Portsmouth, Sarah Eddy introduced him to the woman who would become his wife – Clara Brownell May – daughter of Floride Mitchel. When their house was finished and furnished in 1898, they married. Clara believed that if she was to marry an artist, it should be one who could put a roof over her head.
Oscar Miller had married into a Bristol Ferry family. Clara’s aunts were part of the Bristol Ferry Art Colony – Sophie Mitchel (artist) and Cora Mitchel (poet and musician). Miller’s home and studio were built on Mitchel land that had been an asparagus farm. The Family raised and traded cotton in Florida. Mrs. Miller’s uncle Colby Mitchel had even been impressed into the Confederate Army and had to be rescued after he contracted malaria and smuggled back North. The family spent their time between Florida and Bristol Ferry.
Oscar Miller was a great organizer with a business mind. His Family had an art gallery on New York’s Fifth Avenue so he would also buy art as well as produce it. He always painted in a spotless suit because much of his work was painting portraits and he never knew when a client might drop by unannounced and he wanted to be able to shake their hand. Miller painted the portraits of many important New York, Providence and Fall River businessmen and matrons.
During the Spring, Summer and Fall, he would make the rounds of European locales – Holland, Northeast France, Brittany, St. Ives in England, Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. In the winter he would go back to work in his winter studio in Paris to paint works for the great Paris Salon exhibition. Every other year he would return to Bristol Ferry for a few months to visit family and to paint and exhibit locally.
He exhibited at many American and European institutions including: American Federation of Arts, American Water Color Society, Art Club of Philadelphia, Art Institute of Chicago, Le Salon de la Societe des Artistes Français, Memorial Art Gallery Rochester, Milwaukee Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts Ghent, National Academy of Design, National Arts Club, Newport Art Association, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Providence Art Club, Salmagundi Club, and the Society of American Artists in New York. A posthumous retrospective was held at the Rhode Island School of Design.
When he was in Bristol Ferry he loved to go out to paint at dawn or sunset. He thought the light in Bristol Ferry was like that of Holland or Venice because it was surrounded by water that reflected sunlight upward. More than that, Oscar Bristol Ferry among the most beautiful places in the world.
Bristol Ferry was unique. It had the warmest climate on the island and the surrounding water kept the growing fields moist even in drought. People would come to Bristol Ferry farms as a vacation destination. It was a wonderful area for artists to come for the summer season.
Most of my information on Oscar Miller was from an interview with August “Gus” Miller – Oscar Miller’s grandson. Sept. 12, 2014
The image of Oscar Miller’s painting is from this website:  https://www.rubylane.com/item/230729-JB04415/OSCAR-MILLER-1867-1921-still-life


Out of the Attic: Bristol Ferry Artist Box

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P1060744We received this artist box a number of years ago.  It had belonged to Claire Fay, a longtime board member of the Portsmouth Historical Society.  The paints are relatively new, but the box itself dates from a hundred years ago.  A note said it originally belonged to Bristol Ferry Art Colony member Mariette Letourneau – the great aunt of Claire Fay.  This item raised some questions.  Who was Mariette Letourneau?  Was there an “art colony” at the Bristol Ferry neighborhood of Portsmouth.

Finding Mariette Letourneau was not so easy. Genealogical resources show an aunt for Claire that was named Mariette Letourneau, but the birth date doesn’t match the date given on the card that was left with the box.  Was she an artist at Bristol Ferry?  Perhaps she stayed with the Fay family and they did live on Bristol Ferry Road.

Was there an artist colony?  There were certainly a number of artists that lived in the Bristol Ferry neighborhood.  Many of them were drawn there by Sarah J. Eddy. Sarah was a noted photographer, sculptor and painter.  Her most famous works are portraits of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.  Sarah would invite artists to come visit and stay at her home (if they were female) or at Willowbrook,  her guest house.

Among the most famous artists in the neighborhood was Oscar Miller who had international fame.  He married into a family with Bristol Ferry roots and kept a studio there. Miller’s studio is still there under the care of his grandson.

Sophia Mitchell was another artist who had a national following.  She traveled extensively and had studios in Brooklyn as well as Bristol Ferry.  There were as many as six studios along Bristol Ferry Road.

Bristol Ferry had a reputation for having the quality of light that artists love – beautiful morning light and gorgeous sunsets.fullsizeoutput_167




Out of the Attic: Glen Farm Ribbons

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Second Place Ribbon from Newport County Fair 1914

The theme of this year’s Portsmouth Historical Society Museum displays is “Out of the Attic:  Items of Interest from our Collection.” Among the items to be featured is a cache of award ribbons from Glen Farm.  These are a recent addition to our collection and they offer an opportunity to highlight the outstanding success of Glen Farm. The Taylor family, like so many of the gentleman farmers in our town, were very proud of what they bred or grew on their farm.  It was a matter of pride and sometimes a point of contention.   A 1910 National Magazine article reports.  ” In most national dairy shows and state expositions, the Glen Farm stock has taken many of the prizes, both for butter fat tests and as breeders. Perhaps the brightest star in all Mr. Taylor’s constellation of prize winners is “Missy of the Glen.”  But another gentleman farmer claimed that Missy’s butter fat content was not as high as claimed.  H.A.C. Taylor, the owner of Glen Farm,  brought that farmer as far as the Supreme Court.  Taylor won after the state college monitored Missy’s butter fat for an entire year.  According to Taylor’s son Reginald, the award given by the court didn’t cover the legal costs, but Missy and the Glen Farm workers were vindicated.Missy of the Glen